Post-Ruth Ellis: Changing Attitudes to Crime and Punishment in Britain Almost six decades after her trial and execution, Ruth Ellis still haunts the world of law as well as society, in the UK in particular. In 1963, a couple of years before the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty for murder, Robert Hancock published Ruth Ellis: The Last Woman to be Hanged.1 The issue was just as fresh in 1990 as may be inferred from Laurence Marks and Tony Van Den Bergh coming out with the publication of the book Ruth Ellis: A Case of Diminished Responsibility?…
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…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 1Robert Hancock, Ruth Ellis: The Last Woman to be Hanged (London: Orion Publishing Group, 1963) 2Laurence Marks and Tony Van Den Bergh, Ruth Ellis: A Case of Diminished Responsibility?(New York: Penguin, 1990) 3Kenneth Harper and Shelagh Delaney, Dance with a Stranger (London: Panther, 1985) 4Carol Ann Lee, A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2013) The trial of Ruth Ellis may have lasted only a couple of days or even less than that. But the echoes of the trial continue to linger through the corridors of time and that is a testimony good enough to understand the impact of the case on the British legal system as well as the attitudes of people and society towards crime and punishment. For instance, such terms as ‘crime passionnel (crime of passion)’ and ‘diminished responsibility’ that would otherwise have remained strictly confined to the arena of legal jargon are almost in the public domain today, and in this the contribution of Ruth’s trial cannot be understated. Whether or not Ruth deserved the penalty that she was given continues to be a matter of debate. But it is quite likely that those on either side of the debate confess that she stirred their conscience. In a country with a history of more than 90 per cent5 reprieve rate, it makes one wonder what made the British Home Office authorities of the time so stubborn in dealing with the pleas for a reprieve in Ruth’s case. If that was a move meant for strengthening the abolitionist cause, it did succeed eventually. Were this to be true, it might look unfair that Ruth should have been victimized in the process, but it can be rationalized by calling a Ruth martyr rather than a victim irrespective of the truth. Most people would agree that, the law of the United Kingdom with regard to capital punishment, as it exists today, would not have taken that shape without Ruth’s execution. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 5John Hostettler, A History of Criminal Justice in England and Wales (Hampshire: Waterside Press, 2009), 265. 6Nevertheless, it may be noted that even in 1965, when the UK Parliament resolved to end the death penalty, public opinion largely seemed to be in favour of keeping it probably because conventional thinking would lead us to believe that capital punishment could be a deterrent to murder. In spite of the infamous example of the Birmingham Six who had been doomed to spend seventeen long years in prison before their convictions were finally quashed by the Court of Appeal, the question of reintroducing the use of the gallows continued to be hotly discussed and in 1994, there was a even a legislative attempt to do so. It is a different thing that in the end, the motion was defeated by a large majority.7The implication is that there still seems to be in existence a significant
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